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14 February 2019

My identity as a non-practising Jew is now defined by a permanent state of defensiveness

It becomes a chore. Today I have to file some invoices, clean the toilet, and be Jewish online. 

By Eleanor Margolis

I’m sitting opposite my dad and a large bowl of matzo ball soup. My dad has never been a good cook – he once served me an omelette that made me cry – but his soup is something in which he takes a great deal of pride. He’s spent decades perfecting it and, in all fairness, it’s the perfect balance of chicken-y, sweet and salty. The matzo balls are as fluffy as they can possibly be, while retaining structural integrity. It’s what my mum would’ve called schmeckt. This is a sort of bastardised Yiddish word for “umami” (that meaty, savoury taste that acts as the soul of flavour). It’s more than that, though: schmeckt refers to food that’s both delicious and comforting. Imagine being hugged by a giant roast chicken; that, terrifying as it is, is schmeckt.

A few hours later it’s around one in the morning and I’m in bed, reading aloud to my girlfriend, Leo, from the Wikipedia page for “blood libel”. Leo – whose Jewish grandfather fled France during the Nazi occupation – had let slip during a slightly heated conversation about anti-Semitic tropes, that she had never heard the phrase “blood libel”. After offering up my own garbled and exasperated explanation of the medieval myth that formed the basis of centuries of Jewish persecution, I flipped open my laptop and hammered “blood libel” into Google.

The above two scenarios – the soup eating and the conjugal exploration of racist propaganda – represent what appear to be the only two remaining facets of my Jewish identity. As a Jew, I’m either furious or eating. Sometimes both.

Earlier this week, I thought about muting references to “anti-Semitism” on Twitter. The many, many instances of Jew-bashing – the utterly egregious harassment of Labour MP Luciana Berger in particular – were making me too angry. That’s when I realised that my identity as a non-practising Jew was being defined by an almost permanent state of defensiveness.

I can – or could, at one point in my life – go for days without thinking about being Jewish. Then someone angrily tweets a screen grab of a comment by someone with a Karl Marx avatar (the irony) about all Jews having “blood on their hands”, and suddenly I’m very, very Jewish.

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The problem with allowing a part of your identity to be shaped by anger is that you almost start to resent that part of your identity. It becomes a chore. Today I have to file some invoices, clean the toilet and be Jewish online. All in all, another day of bureaucracy, shit stains and defending myself (in my head, at least) from a multitude of gross accusations so varied that they often contradict each other – like how Jews are simultaneously stingy and flashy. Make up your minds, racists. I suppose there’s a slight plus side to this in the stereotypes about Jewish humour and intelligence. If I don’t feel very smart or funny, hey, at least Nazis think I am.

From an early age, I was taught by my parents that some people would dislike me for being Jewish. Later in life I sometimes find myself “forgetting” that friends owe me money, because I’m so terrified of coming across as miserly. People often ask me what sort of name “Margolis” is, and I nearly always hesitate before telling them it’s Hebrew. In fact, my dad told me he sometimes says it’s Greek just to avoid the aggro. So in many ways, the racists have won. We dedicate time and energy – and money, apparently – to not being the things they think we are.

Having really taken stock of this recently, I’m determined to reclaim my Jewishness. The food side of things is pretty nice, so maybe I’ll just stick to that. I’ll be a food Jew, instead of an “angry on the internet” Jew. I’ll look through my mum’s handwritten recipes for salt beef and lokshen pudding; things passed down to her by her bubbe, a food Jew if ever there was one.

I’ll remember my mum’s memory of her bubbe’s roast chicken, cooked with rice that absorbed all the meat juices. I’ll remember my mum’s roast chicken, and the enduring image of her shoving a whole onion into a dead bird’s cavity. Ending up with a dish that defined schmeckt. That defined Jewishness.